The Only True Panda

For most people, when you say the word 'panda' it instantly conjures up an image of a black and white bear living in the bamboo forests of Asia. But did you know the giant panda is named after the red panda? But that was a mistake as they are actually from different taxonomic families. Here's some more surprising details about these cute furry creatures.

Cut face of a red panda with white snout and fluffy white ears

Like giant pandas, red pandas are a bamboo-munching species native to high forests of Asia. While the two animals share a name and favorite food, they’re not closely related. Western scientists described red pandas 50 years before giant pandas, and named the black-and-white bear after the smaller red panda because of their shared characteristics, like a taste for bamboo and a bonus digit called a pseudothumb. But the latest research has placed red pandas in their own taxonomic family, Ailuridae, while giant pandas belongs to the Ursidae, or bear family.

That makes red pandas the only 'true' panda. The term 'panda' is believed to be derived from the Nepalese words 'nigalya ponya' which translates to 'bamboo eater.'

Though red pandas are carnivores, they rarely eat meat. The term carnivore refers to their biological order, not their dietary preference. Because red pandas descended from a shared ancestor with other carnivores, they share cat-like facial features and teeth, but they switched to a bamboo-based diet more than two million of years ago.

Red pandas are skilled tree-top navigators; they have sharp, semi-retractable claws like a cat, which they use to grip mossy and slippery tree branches. They also use their bushy tails, which are marked with alternating red and buff rings, as ballasts to maintain balance.

Because red pandas have extremely flexible ankles, they are one of the few animals that can climb down trees head-first. Red panda’s fibula and tibia are attached in a way that allows their feet to rotate 180 degrees, giving their curved claws a better angle to grip tree bark.

Though a red panda’s rusty coat might seem like a bold choice for a forest-dwelling species, their color helps them blend in with their surroundings. In their home in the mountainous forests of China, India, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, trees are draped with reddish-brown moss and lichens. So, their color works perfectly as camouflage.